Democratic poll numbers: Preview of the apocalypse?
April 28, 2023
(JNS) Gallup’s headline was attention-grabbing: “Democrats’ Sympathies in Middle East Shift to Palestinians.” The trend has been clear and seemingly inexorable since support hit its second-highest level of 58 percent in 2014 (the peak was at the time of the 1991 Gulf War when support for Israel hit its high for the first time—64 percent —and Democratic support was 62 percent) and steadily fell to 38 percent in 2023. During that period, sympathy for the Palestinians increased from 23 percent to 49 percent. Meanwhile, Republican support has remained consistent, 81 percent in 2014 and 78 percent in 2023, with support for the Palestinians at 11 percent in both years.
How concerned should the pro-Israel community be?
Public opinion towards Israel is often influenced by the public attitude of the president. Given his consistently pro-Israel position, it is no surprise that in four Gallup polls during President Donald Trump’s term, Israel was favored over the Palestinians 61 percent to 21 percent. Perhaps surprisingly, during President Barack Obama’s term, numbers in eight polls were better—62 percent to 16 percent. U.S. President Joe Biden, who has adopted a policy of evenhandedness, has worse numbers than both, with Israel’s advantage declining on average in three polls to 56 percent to 27 percent.
The Democrats brought overall support for Israel down to 54 percent in 2023—the lowest point since 2005—and sympathy for the Palestinians reached a record high of 31 percent. As I’ve noted each year after Gallup releases its poll, contrary to conventional wisdom, Democrats have never been overly sympathetic to Israel. Since 1993, support for Israel has been only 45 percent on average. Even if you go back to 1969, when Israel was still basking in the glow of its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, only 52 percent of Democrats sympathized with Israel. It is the Republicans whose views have dramatically shifted in favor of Israel from the same 52 percent in 1969 to 78 percent in 2023.
While the number of Palestinian casualties may have influenced Democrats’ attitudes in the last year, Gallup analyst Lydia Saad suggests another reason unrelated to Middle East politics could be a contributing factor:
Democrats’ waning religiosity may be a factor in the longer-term trend. Sympathy for Israel has historically been highly correlated with religion, with those attending religious services weekly being much more sympathetic to the Israelis than those who seldom or never attend.
When asked a question about their sympathies, most people will answer (only 11 percent sympathized with neither, both, or had no opinion); however, this does not mean they will act on their opinion. The Middle East is not important to most Democrats, so how they feel about a candidate’s position on Israel is unlikely to determine their vote. The 50-plus percent of Democrats who are Jews do care, and their continued support for Israel ensures they will devote their time, money, and energy to backing pro-Israel candidates. Thus, despite the polls, Democratic candidates have an incentive to support Israel, especially given the lack of resources of the Arab lobby.
Look at the 2022 midterm results. Democrats received $10.8 million of the $17.5 million AIPAC PAC contributed. That’s a strong incentive to adopt a pro-Israel position. Contrary to claims it was targeting progressives or candidates of color, it supported 44 of 100 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; 27 of 56 members of the Black Caucus; and 25 of 38 members of the Hispanic Caucus. AIPAC takes credit for defeating eight Democratic candidates it believed would undermine the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Yes, J Street contributed millions to support some of Israel’s antagonists in Congress, but they couldn’t compete with AIPAC’s PAC.
Though more Democrats are criticizing Israel, especially since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, substantive legislation has not been affected. Congress approved $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel for 2023, including $500 million for missile-defense cooperation; $47.5 million for anti-tunnel cooperation; $25 million for counter-drone cooperation; and millions more for joint projects in cybersecurity, energy, health care and more.
Saad also noted that while there may be greater sympathy for the Palestinians, at least among Democrats, that doesn’t translate into support for the Palestinian Authority. In 2023, 68 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of Israel, and the same percentage had an unfavorable view of the P.A.
Every year the survey shows that younger Americans are less sympathetic to Israel than their elders, creating panic. Are young Americans turning on Israel? Is it because of the anti-Israel climate on college campuses?
Gallup usually reports results by age cohort, but this year provided the data by generation and the gap between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian opinion. Using this measure, Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) went from favoring Israel by 33% over the Palestinians in 2008 to preferring the Palestinians by 2%. This is a dramatic 35-point shift that suggests the Millennials are not becoming more pro-Israel as they get older as one might expect. Gen X (born between 1965 and 1979) dropped only 11 points from 43 percent to 32 percent during that same period. The attitudes of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) barely changed—from a 49 percent advantage for Israel to 46 percent this year.
The pro-Israel community also needs to be concerned with the changing demographics and how that might affect U.S. policy towards Israel. Blacks have historically been less sympathetic to Israel than whites, and, over the last three years, support for both Israelis and Palestinians has averaged 41 percent compared to whites favoring Israel by 62 percent to 24 percent. For Hispanics, the comparable figures are 48 percent to 29 percent. Support for Israel among these minorities has not dropped precipitously, but, as in the case of Democrats, their sympathy for the Palestinians has grown. Given that organizations representing blacks and Hispanics on campus often align with anti-Israel groups, will future political candidates from these communities be inclined towards the anti-Israel progressive left?
As most American Jews will tell you, Israel has a serious hasbara problem. I would argue that it is more an issue of Israeli policy than its PR. Some Israelis, particularly on the right, act unconcerned. They have given up on the Democrats and believe that cultivating Republicans is the way to ensure the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong. Unless the Republicans take the White House and win a majority in Congress in perpetuity, this is a mistake that may bite them in the tuchus. Some might argue Biden’s policies indicate it already has.
When I’ve written about the polls yearly, I’ve tended to be more sanguine and have discouraged hysteria. Given the nature of electoral politics, I am still confident the U.S.-Israel relationship is secure, but the data leads me to see a blinking yellow caution light that behooves Israel and its friends to pay attention to.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby,” “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”